Archive for the ‘Going to India! Travel Log’ Category.

I’m Back

It’s been two weeks now and I saying I’m back, even after 2 weeks, is an approximation of what I would normally have considered “being back”.
It feels like it’s time to draw some kind of conclusion, no matter how hazy and temporary. And what for? Maybe because all good stories have an ending! It feels impossible though.

I remember posting in December that I was going to use this trip as a gateway, because lots of endings were near – important relationships, one very close, my home, and, as I found later, my work too, were suddenly ending in their current form. It felt as though my trip to India was going to act like a sieve, filtering the old from the relevant at this point in my life voyage.

It was exactly like that.

But I’m not quite sure what the filter was made of, and what philter it contained… Do you use the word philter in English? It may be better known in French: philtre.
The sieve added so much. Or maybe, it’s my personal sieve that’s morphed, lets the universe in differently. Whatever it lets in, it feels ok, and it doesn’t need so many epithets all the time, like it used to.

Everything is still here, in some form or other, everything is the same – not at all rosey, it just looks so different. Adventure around every corner. Still walking around Arunachala daily, Laxman commented… “It sounds life is keeping you amused while you are seeing with new eyes; shivas eyes?”
Could well be…! I haven’t a clue. And that’s ok.

Chennai Airport

I’m killing time trying not to fall asleep in front of this computer, waiting for my night flight.

How different it looks from the first time… when I arrived, it looked rather exotically shabby, and now, it looks very luxurious. Hm…. I’m expecting an even greater culture shock a the other end!

I got here by bus. It’s a 5 hour journey in a jam-packed bus, rucksack jammed between my legs, squeezed on a bench with 2 women and a kid and more bags. But it’s ok, it’s always like that, and it’s quite friendly.

Usually when the bus reaches a town, merchants pass the buses calling out with their wares, sweets, bowls of fruits, samosas… The lady next to me decides to buy some fruits. I’m by the window, so I reach out for the stainless steel bowl and pass it to her. She tips the fruit into a plastic bag that start to rip, I pass the bowl back out, then she passes me 50RP, which I pass out of the window…. by then the bus has started off again. The seller starts running along the bus. She doesn’t want 50RP. The lady doesn’t have change, there’s a bit of confusion, she starts picking up the ripped bag to pass it back, but by now, we’re speeding up down the main road and the seller has disappeard out of sight, leaving the fruit on the lady’s lap…. Someone passes a few bank notes to me from behind, which I pass to the lady next to me. She passes money back. It turns out somone at the back of the bus had paid for the fruit, and was passing some change in exchange for the bank note.

Off we ride.

We reach the coast road, an impressive dual carriageway, which we take the wrong side, driving towards the would-be on-coming traffic.
A few miles down, we grind to a halt. Traffic jam. There seem to be a political rally ahead, in prevision of the coming elections. Men get off to pee.

At the next junction, a policeman gets us to cross back to the other side of the dual carriageway, but not to join it: with his long stick, he motions the driver off the road onto a single lane road. A whole convoy is diverted that way, going deeper into the countryside, villagers watching and kids cheering every vehicles that passes through their village. I assume the main road was blocked for the rally, and we have to go another way.

The long column stops in the middle of nowhere. Some trucks have taken the wrong turn, and are backing their lorry to take the other direction. Passengers get on and off the bus, commenting, stretching…

Suddenly it’s dark, and there’s only one lorry ahead. Again we stop. This time it’s a level crossing. The driver gets out again, there’s some discussion. Kids arrive to sell us tea. People stretch their legs. And we’re off, and soon back onto the main road.

Amazingly, I think the bus is more or less on time.
I’m dropped off outside the airport, just need to cross a ditch, a car park, and I’m there.

I’m leaving India. I think I want to cry, but I’m still too overwhelmed to think about that.

Full Moon in Tiruvannamalai

Every full moon, pilgrims come in their thousands – between 20’000 and 100′ooo that is, according to what I heard – to walk around the mountain.

So it was full of anticipation that we boarded the bus back to Tiruvannamalai on Sunday, ready for the small big event – the biggest festival being held in December.

I started the week by bumping into my ‘old’ friend William with whom I’d arrived here the first time. He’d gone somewhere and had just come back. It’s like that here, you keep bumping into the same people.

So later that day we went swimming in the lake and walked around the mountain, and bumped into Laxman again. We decide to visit him in his new house the next morning, the other side of the mountain, and go swimming nearby.

And that’s how the full moon started, walking half way round the mountain already, to find a wonderful little house hidden in a clump of trees, behind a quarry.
Some of the quarries are full of the most wonderful green water. More arrive, and later we set off to do the full moon walk.

It starts relatively quietly, as it’s still daylight.
By the time we’re half way round, back in town – our normal starting point – the place is heaving. The traffic is diverted, buses can’t enter town anymore.
The best way to describe it is a river of people, peaceful, just walking all in the same direction. Most of them are bare foot, so there is no sound but the soft patting of feet on the tarmac and a little talking.

4 lifts to the main road

After one night in Pondy, 3 nights in a thatched hut on stilts, overlooking the ocean. This is Auroville Beach.
It’s an interesting version of paradise marred with apartheid. We’re staying in a locked, guarded compound on the edge of the beach. Don’t imagine barbwire and watch towers though: the hedge is azaleas in full bloom, the lock a number bike lock and the guard dog a great daft pup who digs himself little nests in the damp sand under a hut and sleeps there belly up, legs dangling in the air….
But still, the measures are necessary for our enjoyment of paradise itself.

The beach is a working beach, with fishing going on every day. There is a section for swimming, full of white folks – more to the point, white women in bikinis. And a life guard.

It’s ok to swim elsewhere if you don’t mind some kind of interference. Offering one’s skin to the sun in that way anywhere else than in the restricted area attracts men, alone or in groups, within minutes. They sit a few meters back and to the side, and watch, and watch…. Kids, and the more daring of the men, will address you: Which country? my name? married?

They sometimes wander inside the guarded area, but never too close. Still, it’s nice not to have to swim in a sarong.

Women on the other hand, try to ignore you.

But if you wear a sari, everything changes: they will instantly talk to you, starting by commenting on the sari, then the questions: “How much (did the sari cost)? Gold (chain round my neck)? Married? Children? And sometimes, give me your necklace, or indignant comments about those women who wear things down to there and up here – all in Tamil, but the mimicking leaves no room for false interpretation.

Auroville itself is 8 km inland, off the main road. There is no bus from the “junction” with the main road, the junction being where the dirt track starts. You have to hitch hike by bike. I’m now travelling with Joy and another girl we met in Tiruvanamalai, Svenia, and again at the gate of our beach hut “guest house”, by chance.

The 3 of us get individual lifts within minutes, and here we are, Auroville Solar Kitchen. That’s where working Aurovillian get fed. I know nothing of Auroville, or Sri Aurobindo.
And we can’t get food at the kitchen, because there is no money in Auroville, and you have to stay there for a minumum of 7 days to benefit from Aurovillian services and guest account.

Fortunately Svenia knows someone here who invites us all for dinner on his account.
Later, we find the information centre, watch a video about the place, and see the Matrimandir from outside. It seems there are guests rules to get in, also.

And off to the main road again.
It took 4 lifts to get there, but all within less than a minute waiting.
One Western woman on a scooter who asked me which way to go (she was new), another on a Bullet, a local guy going back from work (I sat in amazon), telling me about his 6 month baby, but I think he meant his wife was 6 months pregnant, because he didn’t know the sex of the baby, and a school teacher who told me about the school in Auroville.

I was vaguely aprehensive to come to Auroville, thinking the people there would all be quite cliquey and unwelcoming, like in all these utopic places – the LP guide warns of how difficult it is to see anything, partly due to the spread-out geography of the place.
But I found that’s not the case. People are there to work, or on placement, and are quite happy to share what they know.

On the 3 day there, we went for a dance class in the healing centre. I think this gave me a good feel of the nature of what is going on here. A big experiment, where people create a kinder version of living and living together.

The spirulina farm was interesting. I was wearing my sari, and we got great treatment by the women there, and multiple photo opportunities….

After swim, sun and sand and coconut beach, back in Pondy now, where Joy and I are going to meet with EJ and Sophia.

Sorry ’bout that

A little bug crept in somewhere into the blog theme, so I’ve reverted it to a classic look till I have time to sort it out.


I started to feel a little restless, specially after doing more meditation than usual, as it stirs things up, and so a new friend Joy and I decided to escape the mountain for a few days.

We’re in Pondy, but my internet time is up, more next time!

More about Tiruvanamalai

The temple. It’s huge! There are 4 towers, courtyards, shrines, more shrines, cattle barriers everywhere to control the crowds, places to sit in the shade, dogs, cats, monkeys and birds in the towers, and an elephant. It’s also heaving with people, usually in their finery.

The working hours of the elephant have been reduced in accordance to the new law, so she’s not out in the evening usually, but she was there on one occasion. She takes a coin from you with her trunk and blesses you with a tap on the head.

One evening, walking round the mountain with 2 companions, an auto rickshaw stopped by to offer us transportation. But it was already full with a family, so I jokingly said, yes, shall I sit on the canopy? And mimicked climbing on top. You have to use all sorts of jokes to deal with people wanting your money, I got used to it now. And we walked on.

But next they went passed again, and everybody got off so we could sit at the back. We negotiated the price to the temple, and squeezed on the back seat. Then the family piled in again, Amma (grandmother) on the driver’s seat, and the other two either side of the driver and grandma.

I was in awe walking inside the temple at night, and was glad Laxman could guide us, since he’d been living here for some years. We were allowed right in, for a coin each time, got blessed in various shrines, including the main Siva shrine, the core of the temple.

There’s a long queue to get in, even at this time at night, but it goes really quick. Once inside, the priest blesses you for a donation, hands out a little holy ash to smear on your forehead. It’s a little intimidating for a non-Hindu, because eventhough the whole thing is about ritual, but everyone seems to do something different.
The whole thing is so fast, there is no time to look or think, and you’re out again, off to the next shrine. The pace is brisk here, unlike everywhere else!

We were at the right time to see the closing ritual of putting Siva and Parvathi to bed, in a special shrine in the Siva temple, all gold and sparkling, and closed with heavy doors with many bells hanging.

Parvathi is briskly carried on a palanquin, fanned, chanted for, all the way to the shrine. A little procession follows. She is made comfortable, then it’s Siva’s turn. They are offered a meal, tea, and gifts from the devotees, as far as I can see, and after a final chant, the doors are closed.

Although I felt privileged to witness these rituals, I must say the whole thing baffles me. I am sure these experiences will lay there somewhere at the back of my mind and do their work slowly, but for now, I’m wide-eyed and just taking it in as best as I can…!

Learning to ride a Bullet

The Western community is quite close-knit here in Tiruvanamalai, and it makes easy to get along.

I’ve been lucky to have met one of the long standing members of this community on the plane to India, going by the name of Laxman, and he made my life easy by showing me round and taking me places I might not have ventured in so easily on my own.

Most of the Westerners stay around the ashram though.
Just sitting in the tea shop one morning, a few people gathered and we were chatting, when Jack the biker arrived. He bought an Enfield Bullet, with the idea of riding it back to France. He’s more or less rebuilt the old machine from scracth (it’s something like 40 years old).
I said ah, that’s something I’ve always wanted to do – learn to ride a motorbike! He said, you can learn right now if you want. I’ll teach you.
-Ok! I said.
(I was rather thinking of learning on a 125 or such, but he was insistant – learn now, why not).

So I went to put heavier pants and trainers on, and off we went, on the Bullet, to a quieter road the other side of the mountain.
It was great! I really enjoyed the sensation of riding this machine, and after a bit of trouble with my co-ordination, I got it.

The funny thing was that every time I stalled, I had some young villagers gathering around, watching, finding it funny to see a woman on a big bike, asking me if I needed petrol, wanting to help me kick start it. And contrary to what it would be like in England, it wasn’t unnerving at all. You get so used to being watched here, and talked to.

I’ll want a bike now.

Tiruvanamalai and the Sacred Mountain

That morning I hopped on the bus (well hopping is a grand word for the occasion, given the amount of luggage and the delays!) and off I went to Tiruvanamalai, home of the Sri Ramana Maharshi ashram and Arunanchala, the sacred mountain. I’ll let you do your own research on that!

The bus journey was fantastic fun. I found myself stranded for quite some time in a small town which name I don’t remember, as the 122 kept “coming soon”…. Every bus without a number, I asked “Tiruvanamalai?”. It became quite comical. In the end I was directed to take another bus, with a newly found travel companion who was also waiting for the 122. We were asked to get off in the middle of nowhere, and there within minutes, the right bus arrived.

We both walked to the ashram and waited for another new friend here, whom I’d met on the plane to Chennai.

Tiruvanamalai is a fantastic place. Huge temple. Really busy and very traditional. A bit outside, near the ashram, loads of people on retreats, or just living here around the ashram – some visibly rather interesting characters, some completely spaced out…! It reminded me very much of the times when I used to go and mix with TM people.

The ashram is quite laid back. Anyone can walk in, sit and meditate during open hours, which are quite long.

My life here so far, 2 days, has been centered around walking around the moutain every evening, and being introduced to everything available.
I went up the mountain, round the mountain…
It feels like a true holiday – at last.

Mamallapuram or the Art of Ripping People Off

With possibly one noted exception, everyone here is after your money. I’ve been witnessing the most crude and subtle forms of manipulation and extortion, and this is all going on with no apparent shame.
Even when confronted, the few I did confront oppenly admitted that’s the way it works here. You’re a tourist, and being ripped off is some kind of rite of passage. Some of it isactually so big I refused to believe people would have the audacity and shamelessness to do it.

To me, the experience was utterly confusing. It becomes incredibly difficult to really understand the level of neediness, and make out the people desperate for help from those who don’t necessarily need it.

Fortunately the lesson only cost me around #25 in donations and over-spending. But that, for India, is a subtantial amount.

Since I have also been cheated out of a substantial amount of money at home at the same time, having not been paid my last salary, it raises the question of sustenance, big time.
I’m not sure why I always choose to trust people to the point where I’m a lot worse off. I seem to only see the good in anyone, till break point.

I guess I have a choice now, to learn this lesson. But still, distinguishing between what is actually going on and what I feel, is not something I’m good at, in all and any area of life, and I’m not sure how to learn to make a distinction.

I’m out of here tomorrow, and glad of it. Off to pack.